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Arts programs will focus on Russian heritage

Florida's St. Petersburg traces its Russian name to the city's early history, but a local organization that promotes Russian culture is a comparative newcomer.

Founded in 1995, in the wake of a successful exhibit featuring artifacts from the Kremlin museums in Moscow, the Tampa Bay area group hopes to stoke interest in a series of Russian-themed events taking place in coming weeks.

Among them is a poetry reading by an acclaimed Russian poet, a program featuring Russian composers by the Florida Orchestra and performances by two young musical ambassadors from St. Petersburg, Russia.

Bill Parsons is president of the local cultural group, known simply as Russian Heritage. Parsons said he hopes the upcoming programs will build on the special connection between the original St. Petersburg and its Florida namesake. Furthermore, he added, the two cities are sister cities.

This city's Russian connection traditionally is traced to Peter Demens, the Russian nobleman who left his homeland in 1881.

He changed his name from Pyotr Dementyev to Peter Demens. Demens, who brought the Orange Belt Railway to St. Petersburg, is said to have named the Florida city after the place where he grew up. Demens Landing in the city's downtown is named after him.

Today, said Parsons, professor of history and Russian studies at Eckerd College, there are about 10,000 people of Russian heritage in the Tampa Bay area.

The Russian Heritage organization got its start at the end of the highly successful Treasures of the Czars exhibit at the Florida International Museum.

Several residents, among them some of Russian heritage, decided to organize the group. It now has about 200 members. About 55 percent of its members are of Russian background, while the remainder includes those who have visited Russia, studied Russian or have a Russian spouse.

According to the organization's Web site, www.russianheritage.org, the goal of Russian Heritage "is to preserve and promote Russian heritage, history and culture, and to educate the general public through such activities as, but not limited to, social events, films festivals, artistic venues, and educational programs."

Over the years, Russian Heritage has presented programs about Demens, classic Russian films, concerts and activities such as the Old Russian New Year celebration at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club. The organization also has brought Russian students to Florida and helped sponsor American students on trips to St. Petersburg, Russia.

This year's "musical ambassadors" from Russia are Ekaterina Gumenyuk, 16, and Dmitry Serebrenninkov, 13. The students, who attend the special music school at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, are winners of several international competitions.

"This is the second time we've had the musical ambassadors. In addition to that, three times we have had winners of English-language competitions," said Parsons, who has led college groups to Russia and spent an academic year at Leningrad State University.

IF YOU GO

- Russian musical ambassadors Ekaterina Gumenyuk and Dmitry Serebrenninkov will perform at the Palladium, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, in a program with the St. Petersburg Folk Ensemble directed by Suzanne Pomerantzeff. They also will perform at Eckerd College, Gibbs High School and Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Largo.

- Russian Heritage Ensemble, "Celebrating the Centennial of Shostakovich," Palladium Theater, 7:30 p.m., March 7.

- Poetry Reading: Yevgeny Yevtushenko, acclaimed Russian poet, filmmaker and political activist, 7:30 p.m., March 14, The Studio620, 620 First Ave. S, St. Petersburg, adults $13, students $10. Yevtushenko will lecture in the Presidential Series, "Every Wall Is a Door: Ten Centuries of Russian Poetry," Miller Auditorium, Eckerd College, 7:30 p.m., March 15, free.

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